More than 1,600 Clark County job seekers clutched résumés and waited in line for an average of three hours on Thursday in hopes of landing a job that pays barely above minimum wage.
But the $10-an-hour starting wage was less important to most of the applicants than the health care benefits provided even for part-time positions and the chance to work for New Seasons Market, one of the region’s most respected retailers.
“I’m looking for health benefits,” said Linda Carter, of Vancouver, a 50-year-old whose hours and benefits were cut at her job as a behavior specialist. Carter said she’s found herself having to take jobs with “less and less pay” in recent years.
She was joined by throngs of unemployed and underemployed people in an orderly line that stretched about three blocks — from Northeast 192nd Avenue to about 195th — then made a hairpin turn and bent north to the entrance to the Life Point Church on 192nd Avenue.
The doors opened at 11:45 a.m. for the job fair Portland-based New Seasons organized to staff its first Vancouver store, set to open in November in the former Albertsons on the corner of Southeast 164th Avenue and McGillivray Boulevard. New Seasons CEO Lisa Sedlar said the company expects to hire about 350 people. About half will work in the Vancouver store. The others will be hired as fill-ins at other stores and as extras for the upcoming holidays, she said.
New Seasons Market’s hiring event comes as Clark County’s economy struggles. County employers added a net 200 jobs in August compared with the same month last year, resulting in what’s projected to be an unemployment rate of 12 percent when a full accounting can be made, the state reported this week.
Every one of the 1,603 New Seasons job-fair applicants got a 10-minute, in-person interview.
Sedlar said “friendliness” was the most important skill set of the day.
“They should have ‘Say yes’ experience,” she said.
That value suits Andrew Wesolowski, 30, a former Circuit City employee who has been out of work for two years.
“Customer service is my strong suit,” said Wesolowski, who was laid off when Circuit City filed bankruptcy.
He stopped receiving unemployment checks six months ago. He has just about given up trying to get another job at an electronics retailer.
“Basically, I’m considering anything in retail,” he said.
New Seasons Market operates a string of 10 grocery stores known for organic and locally grown produce and meats, artisan bakeries and prepared dishes and meals. The popular stores also carry non-health-food items, such as sugary, brand-name cereals and Coke.
The company is spending between $4.5 million and $5 million to remodel the former Albertsons. The new store will go head-to-head with other organic food stores on the east side, such as Whole Foods and Chuck’s Produce and Street Market, which have lined up to serve the more affluent households in east Vancouver and Camas.
The company’s internal minimum wage of $10 per hour sounded good to many of Thursday’s job applicants, who were provided with snacks, such as sample granola bars, fruit and water as they waited in line. Washington state’s minimum wage is $8.67 per hour.
Jim Koty, 62, of Camas, said he’s made good money during his career as a regional sales manager for F.L. Schmidt. “I was paid well,” he said. But Koty doesn’t mind New Seasons’ salary because he still wants to work. He was cut loose from his job selling industrial cement products and equipment with dwindling demand.
“I’m at that age where I could retire, but I’d rather keep working,” Koty said. “I have bills to pay.”
Krissi Carson, 30, who recently earned her master’s degree, said she also is eager to work to pay off her college loans. Carson has been living with her parents since leaving the Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky., in July.
“I’ve applied for between 75 and 200 jobs throughout the Vancouver and Portland area,” she said.
Carson and all of the New Seasons’ job candidates should find out soon whether they landed a position, said Danielle Halstead, the Vancouver store’s new store manager.
“We’re hoping to get back to everyone in two to three weeks,” she said.